Friday, October 24, 2008

Lessons From My Communist Days About Media Bias

I have the eerie feeling of living in a country where the media is in the back pocket of a political party. When I was living in Italy, the political parties each had their own national newspaper. The Communists had L'Unita, MSI (fascists) had Il Secolo, and the Socialists had Il Popolo. I don't remember any of the other party newspapers.

We seem to have a situation where those with impassioned political loyalties are colouring the news coverage without adequately disclosing their ideological bias.

One of the lessons I learned in the Young Socialist Alliance, (a Trotskyist youth group back in the seventies) was that there is no such thing as straight news coverage. Every newspaper and every media outlet has according to my Marxist teachers an element of "class bias." The solution for a dedicated Marxist was to read a paper with a "proletarian" bias. The solution for any critical reader of the news is to ascertain the underlying bias of the news reporter and his or her employer.

I did not learn to view news coverage as biased from political conservatives. I learned this valuable lesson from proud and avowed communists. It is one respect in which they view the political landscape far more clearly than do people closer to the political centre.

A news media that is striving to be dispassionate would have a list of questions and definitions that would be identical for both candidates. For both candidates, a rigourous review of their past experience would be an ongoing and a thorough process. The opinion held of them by colleagues and constituents would be examined and communicated to prospective voters. This line of inquiry has been sporadic at best in the current campaign. Finding out about Obama's record in Chicago requires digging and persistence. He clearly is defensive about it. A good reporter and a good cop will start searching more thoroughly when a subject or a suspect starts sweating. Instead of following this basic instinct, mass circulation news outlets tend to drop all questioning. Blogs and talk radio have tended to function as did the "samizdat" underground press in the former USSR, circulating news and opinion that is marginalised by the "official" press.

The other thing that needs to be defined is "personal" attacks and attacks on family. In some countries, little is known about the "first family". America has a tradition of iconising the family of the chief executive. It can be safely said that an official photo album and perfunctory biographies of presidential family members is an acceptable concession to public curiosity. There is a point on the continuum of media scrutiny that degenerates into tabloid muckraking. The pain this can cause a sensitive adolescent or harried spouse needs to be weighed when pursuing such a story. The family of Sarah Palin was subjected as never before to personal scrutiny. It is odd that the tone of gossip tabloids spilled into the pages of mainstream and "respectable" news outlets. The level of personal abuse perpetrated in the name of "satire" against Sarah Palin is beneath contempt.

The spouse or child of a political candidate who campaigns with political speech rather than "Daddy is a nice man." speeches should be left alone. If a family member makes political comments, their logic and accuracy are fair game. Their personal life is not. Cindy McCain has given political speeches that are fair game for analysis. The New York Times did a story about Cindy McCain's social difficulties with other Senate wives during McCain's tenure in Washington. The "gray lady" did not have any problem adopting the tone of the National Enquirer in pouncing on that story. Given the widespread reputation of legislators for side dishes on their carnal menu, the indignation towards John McCain seems selective.

The polls are far more encouraging to Obama than they are to McCain. It will be interesting to see how they compare to the one poll that legally counts. With the stock market doing so poorly and banks failing, the fawning media should simply be the coupe de grace for an Obama coronation. It is amazing that Obama has not been able to take off in a landslide. His friends, his philosphy and his program provide ample explanations for his failure to win over the electorate.

The media has repeatedly provided us with the helpful information that Obama is an African American. Racism is given as the explanation for his mediocre performance among white voters. Those who care about being racist are indignant at the insult. It is not likely to change anyone's mind. It is highly unlikely that many of the 90% of African American voters who support Obama will be shamed into voting for McCain by charges of racism.

Will bandwagon psychology and biased reporting carry the day for Obama? Talk radio and the internet provide a counterweight to the bias of the mainstream media. This is why so many newspapers are reeling with loss of readership and advertising revenue. What is the answer to their commercial woes? Have no fear, the Fairness Doctrine will save the day!! If your liberal talk radio can't stand up to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, force them by law to include you in their time slot. What about the newspapers and television news coverage? That's news, not commentary. So it doesn't count according to the Fairness Doctrine.

I look back with nostalgia to the intellectual honesty employed by my Trotskyist comrades back in the seventies behind closed doors at strategy meetings. It is a refreshing contrast to the deceitful employed on the evening news and when we hit the streets to sell our newspapers.

Radical groups like the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party provide a good political education. They are carriers of childhood political diseases that confer upon adults an immunity to political folly. And they are a lot cheaper than college. Sphere: Related Content

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